The Case for Teaching Huck Finn

By Amit P., 10th Grade

October 2020

Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, is a controversial book. Many schools and teachers around the country oppose the teaching of Huck Finn. They assert that the book is racist because of the use of racial slurs, such as the N-word. They also claim that Jim, the black protagonist, is portrayed as dumb and uneducated. Although it may seem so at a glance, Twain’s book is, in fact, anti-racist, and aims to portray Jim as humane and wise. The racist language serves only to show the racist attitudes at the time, in order to be realistic. Huck Finn should be taught because Twain is taking a stand against racism through his portrayal of Jim, use of satire, and illustration of the dangers a racist society poses.

The main claim of those who oppose teaching Huck Finn is that it portrays Jim in a racist way; however, this is a misreading of his character since Jim is actually both wise and kind. For instance, when Huck and Jim are chatting on the boat, they begin talking about the language of man, and Huck tries to explain to Jim why they speak differently than Frenchmen. In response, Jim presents this argument: “Is a Frenchman a man?” “Yes.” “Well, den! Dad blame it, why doan’ he talk like a man? You answer me dat!”. One could say that Jim’s logic is fundamentally flawed and therefore he is stupid, but when given his lack of education, the logic becomes more sound, showing that Jim has wisdom, if not education. Furthermore, his argument can be interpreted as showing how ridiculous slavery is, as he is essentially saying that all men are men, and are therefore equal. Furthermore, when Huck fools Jim, Jim makes Huck feel guilty, telling Huck that “Dat truck dah is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren’s en makes ‘em ashamed.” By revealing his understanding of how friends should and shouldn’t treat each other, Jim, a slave, teaches Huck, a white boy, right from wrong. He makes Huck feel guilty enough to go and apologize, which at first seems very strange to Huck due to the stereotypes in his society. In fact, after this moment, Huck never tricks Jim again, which demonstrates that Huck understands that he should treat Jim with respect. These two scenes show Jim’s true nature, the one that Twain wanted the reader to see, thereby disproving any claims of Jim’s character being slower or duller than others.

Not only is Twain portraying his black protagonist as human, but he also takes a stance against slavery overall by satirizing Huck’s racist, white father and the arbitrary feud between the Grangerfords and Sheperdsons. After taking Huck to the cabin, Pap gives a speech to Huck about how the Government is doing him a disservice and trying to hurt him. Pap criticizes the government, saying, “Here’s a govment that calls itself a govment, and lets on to be a govment, and thinks it is a govment, and yet’s got to set stock-still for six whole months before it can take a hold of a prowling, thieving, infernal, white-shirted free nigger.” Pap believes that all black men should be slaves, and assumes that all slaves are “prowling, thieving, [and] infernal”. Ironically, he is the one that is “prowling, thieving, [and] infernal” because he always causes ruckus around town while drunk and is trying to steal Huck’s money. This irony disputes the idea held at that time that whites are superior to blacks. Twain also uses the feud between the Grangerfords’ and the Shepherdsons’ to further this point. Huck begins questioning Buck about the feud, and uncovers that little is known about its origins. “What was the trouble about, Buck?—land?” “I reckon maybe—I don’t know.” “Well, who done the shooting? Was it a Grangerford or a Shepherdson?” “Laws, how do I know? It was so long ago.” Huck, like most people, tries to find a reason for why the feud exists. Ironically, Buck cannot provide one, which makes for this ridiculous exchange. The two families fight merely because they have different names, which is, of course, irrational. Slavery can be. viewed in the same way, with one group thinking it is better than another simply because of the color of its skin. By making fun of Pap and the Feud, Twain shows how slavery is unfair and illogical.

The book that Twain wrote is not a racist one, but the society described is racist and dangerous. Twain reveals its dangers through Huck’s divided conscience. Throughout the book, the N-word is used 219 times, illustrating how commonly it was used at that time. Huck has been indoctrinated into thinking that all black slaves are the same, undeserving of a name other than the N-word. This kind of dangerous thinking is further shown after Jim gets captured by Silas Phelps. Huck is sitting alone on the raft, and begins to think about how Jim is someone’s property, and that he probably needs to be returned to slavery. Huck decides to write a letter to Miss Watson, Jim’s previous owner, describing their current location. After doing this, he feels good, and “all washed clean of sin”. Eventually though, he realizes that Jim has only been kind to him, and decides to tear up the letter, exclaiming “All right, then, I’ll go to hell”. Twain is showing the reader how Huck’s mind has been corrupted by hs society, making him think he is good for sending a slave back into slavery, and thinking he is bad for helping a slave escape. This thinking shows that Twain is trying to portray how the society in those days could twist Huck’s mind into thinking he is wrong for doing the right thing.

In today’s society, banning controversial books (or people) that make people uncomfortable has become commonplace, and Huck Finn is just one such example. Instead of thinking through, and analyzing such instances, many skim over the book or whatever it may be, and any hint of racism or bigotry is condemned. Huck Finn is a historical novel, and what it presents is problematic and racist, although the novel itself is not. By banning the book, we are preventing those who come after us from learning from these mistakes, and so they will inevitably be repeated in the future.